Animals from silk moths to stallions communicate through scent signals. Humans too. In 2015, scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel used hidden cameras to show that after shaking hands, we unconsciously raise our hands to our mouths and noses, sampling chemo-signals from the other person. Fragrance is an extension of this behaviour. We wear it for others, to intrigue, seduce and engage them.
Perfumistas are pumping up their fragrance to increase their smell-space beyond the six feet prescribed by social distancing
But how is that supposed to work in the new normal? Social distancing means that, right now, no-one can get close enough to smell your fragrance. We have gone the olfactory equivalent of radio silent. And while our digital devices allow us to still see and hear each other, you can’t send a smell down a fibre optic cable. No wonder there are tales circulating in the fumehead community of perfumistas pumping up their daily dose of fragrance in attempts to increase their smell-space beyond the six feet prescribed by social distancing.
But while superdosing your scent is one way to get the better of lockdown, a subtler strategy would be rediscovering another aspect of fragrance altogether, an aspect we rarely think about in modern society: using it to communicate not with others, but with ourselves.
“Each evening when I finish working, I light a scented candle,’ says Escentric Molecules’ Creative Director, Paul White. ‘Always the same one, Diptyque’s Feu de Bois. Lighting the candle relaxes me. The moment I inhale that aroma of crackling wood I feel as if I have entered a sanctuary of some kind, even though I am in the same physical space as before.”
“The moment I inhale that aroma of crackling wood I feel as if I have entered a sanctuary of some kind, even though I am in the same physical space as before”
When you have to live your whole life in one confined area, it can be hard to let go of the stresses of one part of it. Everything bleeds and blurs into everything else. Lighting a scented candle or burning incense creates an invisible threshold that demarcates two different smell-spaces, two different mind-sets. Once the new scent fills the room, you are breathing a different air. If you light the same candle each time, your sub-conscious will begin to associate that smell with relaxing and the trigger will be re-inforced.
The sense of smell is processed in an ancient part of the brain called the limbic system (also known as the smell-brain). This is also the primary seat of memories, emotions, and ‘gut reactions’. The limbic system controls our most basic drives: hunger, sex and the sense of security, and acts directly on the autonomic nervous system. As anthropologist Barbara Lex has pointed out: ‘intense stimulation of the autonomic nervous system retards and prohibits logical reasoning’ – desirable when you want to switch off.
“Odour-mediated communication between individuals, once thought to be limited to ‘lower animals’ is now understood to carry information about familiar relationships, stress and anxiety levels”
The sensitivity of our sense of smell has been greatly under-estimated. In an article in Science magazine in 2017, neuroscientist John P. McGann exposed poor human olfaction as a nineteenth century myth that has persisted in spite of the evolving science. “Human behaviours and affective states are … strongly influenced by the olfactory environment, which can evoke strong emotional and behavioural reactions… Odour-mediated communication between individuals, once thought to be limited to ‘lower animals’ is now understood to carry information about familiar relationships, stress and anxiety levels, and reproductive status in humans as well, although this information is not always consciously accessible.”
Our reactions to odorants is conditioned by learnt behaviour, so what works for you is down to the personal associations of a particular smell, and how often - or how early - its positive association has been re-inforced. If you are feeling lonely in self-isolation, you might want to curl up with your boyfriend’s unwashed T-shirt, or wear a gourmand body lotion that reminds you of the pleasure of comfort-eating cookies. If baking smells like vanilla and caramel are associated with a mother-figure from your childhood, the sense of security is enhanced even further.
Iso E Super is not produced by our own bodies, so it would seem that it is mimicking an as-yet-unidentified molecule produced naturally in humans
But while our response to scents is inflected by personal memories, certain smells have been demonstrated to have the same effect across a wide range of people. Research at IFF (International Flavours & Fragrances) using fMRI scans has revealed the parts of the brain stimulated by different natural scent materials. Lavender was shown to stimulate brain areas associated with relaxation, while vanilla was associated with an increase in contentment.
Professor Dr. Hanns Hatt, whose laboratory at Ruhr-University Bochum specialises in olfaction, has dug down to a more granular level and mapped the reaction of the human brain to individual fragrance molecules. Iso E Super stimulates the hypothalamus, an area within the limbic system that controls hormone regulation. Iso E Super is not produced by our own bodies, so it would seem that it is mimicking an as-yet-unidentified molecule produced naturally in humans.
The effect of Iso E Super on the hypothalamus is much stronger in women than in men, indicating that this unknown substance may be something that is more important for women than men to smell. Extrapolating from Iso E Super’s anecdotally-observed cocooning ‘hug me’ effect, it might be that it has a purpose similar to the hormone oxytocin which promotes mother-child bonding.
Dousing yourself in the molecule is like receiving an olfactory hug at a time when you can’t receive physical ones
Iso E Super is, of course, Molecule 01. Dousing yourself in the molecule during lockdown could be thought of as receiving an olfactory hug at a time when you may not be receiving any physical ones. On the other hand, if you are self-isolating with other selves, spritzing a little into your personal smell-space could be an experimental strategy for a smooth lockdown. While this is a great time to rediscover the power of fragrance to enhance your own moods, adding a little sweetener to the shared air is not to be sniffed at. The family that sprays together, stays together.